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Understanding Users Through Contextual Enquiry

By: Luella Paine
Date: February, 2019
File under: Articles

Contextual enquiries are a great way to explore how, where and why people use a product or service. This article discusses what contextual interviews involve, why they are important and what to consider when planning this kind of research.

What is a contextual enquiry?

Contextual enquiries are interviews with users in the place where they use a particular product or service, such as in their home or workplace. While the interviews are an opportunity to explore a user’s wants, needs and concerns, they also allow us to observe how they behave or interact in the very place they use the product or service.

Contextual enquiries can be used at any stage of the design process but can be extremely useful at the start of the design process to help steer design decisions or in the evaluation stage to observe how a prototype or website performs in the physical environment where people will be actually using it.

In a nutshell contextual interviews take us into the ‘secret’ world of the user and often provide insights that are harder to uncover in the testing lab or interview room.

Contextual enquiries provide great insight into the ‘secret’ world of the user. 

Some of the contextual studies we’ve done at U1 include exploring product bundling, discovering how people like to stream music and understanding what heart attack survivors and their families do, and need, after they leave hospital.

Why are contextual enquiries useful?

Any type of qualitative investigation can provide some insight into how and why different users interact with a product or service. But contextual enquiries look deeper to discover how the user’s environment can affect things like their choices, decisions and behaviours. Here’s some of the advantages of using contextual interviews.

Users are in their natural environment

Someone using their mobile phone at a table surrounded by dirty dishes

Most user interviews or usability tests are typically held in a lab or interview room. While this makes logistic sense, it places users in an unfamiliar environment and can make them feel self-conscious or under the spotlight and less likely to behave as they would in the ‘real’ world.

As researchers it’s our job to put participants at ease and make the user environment as unintimidating as possible, but nothing beats having users on their own turf. This is particularly useful to learn how users complete an everyday task or move around a space.

Nothing beats having users in the familiarity of their own environment.

While users are definitely more relaxed at home or work, they are also more likely to behave naturally giving us plenty of opportunities to observe unconscious actions or behaviours. In a recent study we observed users completing tasks while lying down, playing with the dog or feeding the baby – none of which is easy or natural to simulate in the lab environment.

Seeing what people actually do

One of the tenets of user experience research is to pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Contextual interviews provide many opportunities to observe users in the places and spaces where they use a product or service and often what a user actuallydoes can be in stark contrast to what they say they do.

What a user actually does can be in stark contrast to what they say they do.

In a recent contextual interview, when a user explained how she pays her utilities bills it seemed a straightforward process: “I always pay them online through my bank app before the due date.” But following her around the house as she showed us her payment processes, we observed that some bills were set up for direct debit, some were paid via the supplier website, some were paid at the local Post Office and many bills sat unpaid on the kitchen table long after the due date.

Seeing the constraints of the physical environment

In labs we typically test and observe in a rarefied environment. The room has few distractions, the user is sitting in a chair, often at a desk, and we use newish equipment such as desktop computers and smart phones with speedy response times.

Using a standard operating environment is important for reliability and consistency in usability testing. But with contextual enquiries where the goal is more about usage in context, we can get a far richer idea of the real user experience, warts and all.

Our contextual interviews have taken us to bedsits and share houses where users literally do everything – watch TV, talk on the phone, meet friends, buy stuff, write letters, study, pay bills, play games, read, eat AND participate in our interview – on the bed. And there have been plenty of examples where we’ve seen users completing one task on their phone and another on their tablet with the TV blaring, kids chattering and dinner cooking in the background.

These kinds of situations give us useful insights into the lived experience of the user in the context of using products and services. Often this isn’t possible in other settings like the lab or interview room.

Challenges with contextual interviews

Of course, conducting contextual interviews comes with a few challenges:

·       Logistics. There is far more travel time involved with visiting people at home or work. Remember to plan less interviews per day and leave plenty of time between interviews as a contingency for delays, traffic or getting lost.

·       Safety and security. Where possible, have both a moderator and observer attending each interview. While this helps for note-taking, having an extra person is a safety backup and provides peace of mind for everyone’s security.

·       Equipment back-ups. You’ll need to be completely self-sufficient on the road so make sure your equipment and devices are fully charged, bring your own wi-fi access, be prepared to trouble-shoot in a variety of user environments and carry plenty of batteries.

·       Respect. Remember that people are welcoming you into their own spaces and you will have less control of the situation than in interviews where participants come to your premises. Accept their hospitality, show respect and be prepared to roll with the punches. There will be times when you will need to set aside that perfectly prepared interview guide and start improvising.

Contextual enquiries are a great pathway into the world of the user and especially useful anywhere in the design process where you want to gain deep insights into the context of how, where and why your products and services are used. Not only are they a rich source of data, they are a fascinating and pleasurable way to conduct experience research.

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